Story by Jeff Metcalfe
Utah was a surprise finalist in the 2022 Pac-12 tournament, winning three games as a No. 6 seed before running out of gas against No. 1 seed and defending national champion Stanford.
Now as first-time regular season co-champions, the Utes are expected to make the final of the five-day tourney, which opens Wednesday in Las Vegas for a fifth year.
It’s an easier road – Utah doesn’t play until the quarterfinals Thursday – but there’s also more pressure from the outset as the No. 2 seed with aspirations of a rubber game against No. 1 Stanford.
The Cardinal is a two-time defending champion with 15 tournament titles over the 21 years the event has been held. Utah’s first tournament with more than one win was last year, its 11th appearance.
“We know we have so many more games left so we want to just keep going, and we’re not done yet,” guard Gianna Kneepkens said after scoring 28 in Utah’s 84-78 win over Stanford last week.
Neither is the Cardinal, which dropped to No. 6 in the AP top-25 poll while Utah rose to a school-best No. 3. Both could be No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, provided they make it through to the Pac-12 final Sunday.
“I think we can play a lot better,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “We have some work to do. Our turnovers hurt us a lot (against Utah), probably the most. Our lack of execution. They were the better team.”
Stanford and Utah are locks to host NCAA Tournament sub-regionals starting March 17. The Pac-12 tournament results could determine if there will be a third team from the conference – UCLA, Colorado or Arizona — hosting in the NCAA’s first and second rounds.
A record-tying seven Pac-12 teams seem bound for the 68-team NCAA field. Oregon has more work to do to be an eighth qualifier despite its No. 18 NET ranking. The Ducks lost seven straight before going 2-0 last week.
For context, our Hotline power ratings this week, which differ somewhat from tournament seeding, are:
1. Utah (up 1 spot, No. 7 NET rating)
2. Stanford (down 1, No. 5)
3. Colorado (up 2, No. 21)
4. UCLA (No. 25)
5. Arizona (down 2, No. 27)
6. USC (up 1, No. 30)
7. Washington State (down 1, No. 39)
8. Oregon (up 1, No. 18)
9. Washington (down 1, No. 71)
10. Oregon State (up 1, No. 57)
11. California (down 1, No. 80)
12. Arizona State (No. 115)
Here is how we see the Pac-12 Tournament going down at Mandalay Bay Michelob Ultra Arena (all times Pacific; all games on Pac-12 Networks until the final).
First round – Wednesday
No. 5 seed UCLA (22-8) vs. No. 12 Arizona State (8-19), 12 p.m.
Even with ASU registering its first Pac-12 win last week, there is not enough evidence that the Sun Devils are capable of upsetting the Bruins. UCLA won 82-63 on Feb. 5 in the only regular-season meeting and has a plus-8.6 average scoring margin to ASU’s minus-8.6. Charisma Osborne and Londynn Jones combined for 43 points against ASU, and the Bruins were 11-of-22 from 3-point range. Pick: UCLA
No. 8 Washington (15-13) vs. No. 9 Oregon (16-13), 2:30 p.m.
Much is on the line between teams that split in the regular season, particularly for Oregon, which is trying to extend its NCAA Tournament appearance streak to six. If the Ducks again are without 6-foot-3 freshman Grace VanSlooten (ankle) and using only eight players, they will need strong play from 6-foot-8 Phillipina Kyei and 6-foot-2 Taylor Hosendove to balance a guard-heavy lineup. Pick: Oregon
No. 7 Washington State (19-10) vs. No. 10 California (13-16), 6 p.m.
Washington State is not deep but has more than enough starting depth to win for a second time against Cal. Charlisse Leger-Walker had 25 against the Bears in a 70-60 victory on Feb. 5 and is more than capable of repeating that performance, likely with more help this time from Bella Murekatete. Jayda Curry is scoring more now than she was then, but Cal also will need Evelien Lutje Schipholt back (after playing only 10 minutes last week) to have a chance. Pick: Washington State
No. 6 USC (21-8) vs. No. 11 Oregon State (12-17), 8:30 p.m.
The Trojans won both regular-season meetings, but the most recent game, on Feb. 12, was by four points in overtime. This is a more dangerous game for USC than it appears on paper, especially since the Beavers lifted the weight of a nine-game losing streak with an upset of Arizona last week. With Talia von Oelhoffen out, freshman Adlee Blacklock now is a scoring factor for OSU. Pick: Oregon State
Quarterfinals – Thursday
No. 5 UCLA vs. No. 4 Arizona (21-8), 12 p.m.
Arizona won the lone regular-season meeting on Feb. 3 but needed overtime for the 71-66 victory. The Wildcats are 7-6 since Jan. 13, ending with a thud in road losses to the Oregon schools. UA presumably will benefit from not playing Wednesday and certainly be better if Jade Loville finds her shooting stroke. Not much separation in what could become a defensive game. Pick: Arizona
No. 9 Oregon vs. No. 1 Stanford (27-4), 2:30 p.m.
Stanford didn’t dominate Oregon at home Jan. 29, winning 62-54. Cameron Brink, though, made Cardinal history with a triple-double (16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 blocks), just the second in the Pac-12 all-time to include blocks. Stanford last lost consecutive games to Pac-12 opponents in January 2021. It’s hard to see that happening in this game. Pick: Stanford
No. 7 Washington State vs. No. 2 Utah (25-3), 6 p.m.
Utah is 2-0 against Washington State, winning 71-66 in Pullman on Dec. 30 and a more decisive 73-59 win Feb. 12. The Cougars were missing Leger-Walker in the first meeting but had her for the rematch, where Utah proved too balanced with five double-figure scorers. The Utes have won 10 of their last 11 games and will be a tough out for anyone in this field. Pick: Utah
No. 11 Oregon State vs. No. 3 Colorado (22-7), 8:30 p.m.
Colorado is flying somewhat under the radar because of Mountain partner Utah’s even greater success. But the Buffs have one of the wins over the Utes and would relish a chance for a rubber game. They dominated Oregon State 67-48 on Feb. 5 with a 21-6 first-quarter outburst and a 46-26 rebounding edge. Even if Colorado doesn’t control the game the same way, it still has too much in this matchup. Pick: Colorado
Semifinals – Friday
No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 1 Stanford, 6 p.m.
Stanford is not a good matchup for Arizona, particularly when it comes to rebounding. The Cardinal won 73-57 on Jan. 2 (53-35 edge on the boards) and 84-60 on Feb. 9 (45-27). With 6-foot-7 center Lauren Betts’ improvement, Stanford is even deeper in the post and in paint scoring. Stanford has played in six straight tournament finals. Pick: Stanford
No. 3 Colorado vs. No. 2 Utah, 8:30 p.m.
Way back on Dec. 14, Utah crushed Colorado 85-58 largely off a 26-4 second-quarter run. The Buffs progressed far enough by Jan. 6 to win 77-67, handing the Utes their first loss. Colorado is good enough defensively (58.6 points allowed per game) to keep the Utes from reaching their 84.3-point scoring average (No. 4 nationally), but that won’t necessarily be enough for a victory. Pick: Utah
Final – Sunday
No. 2 Utah vs. No. 1 Stanford, 2 p.m. (ESPN2)
This is the game everyone without a rooting interest elsewhere wants to see. Although the Hotline has the Utes back at No. 1 in our power ratings for the third time in four weeks, there is reason to cut Stanford some slack because of a brutally tough ending to the regular season. Remember, the Cardinal was on fumes but still within a point at Utah with 2:29 left. Utah winning twice in nine days over Stanford — after once (ever) previously — seems improbable. Pick: Stanford
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